Review: The Words
PLOT: A struggling writer finds a powerful, unclaimed story in an attache case and takes it for his own, gaining instant notoriety and fortune. But the good times stop rolling once the story's real author comes forward and threatens to blow the writer's secret.
REVIEW: In case that brief plot synopsis is misleading, let me first clarify: THE WORDS is not a thriller, despite the juicy possibilities inherent in its set-up. The film, from first-time directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal, is in fact a multi-layered drama, a love-letter to the considerable power of fiction and a "has it all been a story?" brain-teaser. The film is certainly no slouch in the ambition department, but at the end of the day, its winds up being too clever for its own good.
The film starts off at a fancy literary reading in New York, where hotshot author Clayton (Dennis Quaid) reads a few chapters from his forthcoming book, "The Words." His book is about hotshot author Rory (Bradley Cooper), who finds himself in the middle of every aspiring writer's dream: his book is a phenomenon and he's the toast of the town. He and his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana), are finally upwardly mobile after years of struggling. But Rory has a secret: the story is not his own. It stems from a manuscript he found in an attache case in Paris, a powerful love story set in post-war Paris. Humbled by its simple brilliance, and tired of treading water with his own mediocre work, Rory lifts the story word-for-word and passes it along to a high-profile literary agent. It all snowballs from there.
One day, Rory is approached in the park by an Old Man (Jeremy Irons), who proceeds to shock him by slyly inferring that he's wise to the young writer's sham. In fact, the Old Man is the story's author; his young wife lost the book years ago in France, and it subsequently ruined their marriage and his life. We see flashbacks of those years, hence we find ourselves in a story within a story within a story, and after the Old Man finishes his sepia-toned tale of love and loss, Rory's world is suitably crumbled.
If THE WORDS brings to mind any other film, it's certainly THE HOURS, with its interweaving, cross-generational stories of heartbreak, loss, regret - you know, all the big Awards Season emotions. Even Marcelo Zarvos' persuasive melodies are evocative of Philip Glass' haunting HOURS score. But THE HOURS, overwrought as it sometimes is, has such a strong, palpable sense of tragedy about it; the film really packs a wallop. (That cast doesn't hurt, either.) THE WORDS is, at its core, about fiction, a made-up thing. There isn't enough weight to the overall material, but it's especially flimsy if all we're watching is just some writer's stories that may or may not be autobiographical. (And, this may be slightly off topic, but as much as I love the act of writing, there is zero excitement to be found in a sequence where a writer types with intensity at his computer/typewriter, and THE WORDS has a few of those.)
Sternthal and Klugman's script was workshopped at Sundance over ten years ago, and has been floating around ever since, until their old buddy Cooper came along and helped them get the project off the ground. One can see why the screenplay would be a hot item; it probably reads better than it plays, its plot machinations more subtle and savvy. But on the screen, THE WORDS gets lost in the melodrama of its subjects, with dozens of lines of dialogue that inspire groans. "I'm not who I thought I was," Cooper says at one point, which cues eye-rolling. At another juncture, Irons lays out the following wisdom: "We all make choices in life. The hard thing is to live with them." Whoa, deep man.
The cast works hard to elevate THE WORDS; Cooper is definitely a strong screen presence, although sometimes all he's asked to do is stand there and stare meaningfully at somebody or something. Jeremy Irons can play a sly old dog as well as anybody, and the film is at its best when he's around. (I wish they hadn't covered his face in mediocre old-age make-up, however. Unnecessary.) It would have been a much more interesting film if Irons was the actual focus, but THE WORDS unfortunately has other things on its mind - they're just not compelling enough.
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